Social Conservatism in Theory and Practice

Ben Shapiro delivered a measured rebuke to Rick Santorum for an inability to articulate a universal social conservatism:

Social conservatism is based on traditional morality; American social conservatism is based on secular explanation of traditional morality. Appeals to the Bible may convince believers, but they alienate non-believers. They end the moral conversation and polarize relationships. Believers end up labeling non-believers atheists; atheists end up labeling believers kooks.

That’s the problem for Rick Santorum, too. Moderate to liberal opinion holds that Santorum is a fringe candidate, a religious panderer who revs up the base but loses the middle. There’s truth to that perception — polling shows that Santorum is seen as a more fringe-y candidate than, say, Mitt Romney. More damaging, there is a popular perception that Santorum is paranoid about sex, focused solely and completely on matters of the bedroom. This is just plain false. But Santorum’s own language lends support to that false perception. When he talks about Satan using “sensuality” to seduce the United States, he sounds like a tent preacher, rather than a politician. When he rails against the pervasive sexuality of our society — all of which is true — he doesn’t do so on social grounds, but on moral grounds, slinging around terminology that makes the irreligious blush.

None of this is to say that Santorum is wrong. But it’s political suicide.


Here’s the problem: Social Conservatism no longer means “secular explanation of traditional morality.” Ask any apolitical, barely-pays-attention, Daily Show-viewer to define “social conservatism” and they’ll say “a fundamentalist who wants to imprison gays and ban abortion.” Through decades of New York Times and Hollywood smears (not to mention help from Santorum-style politicians) today social conservatism has devolved into a synonym for “orthodox Christian theology” when it should mean “empirical reasons why casual sex is destructive and marriage is great.”

We have Baby Boomers like Santorum to thank for this confusion. But their children’s generation — now beginning to hit 30 and many with young families of their own — can act as a corrective here to untangle theology from behavior and return to the practical, secular case for a socially conservative lifestyle.

For example: these days my advocacy for gay marriage has shifted from “gay marriage in theory” to “gay marriage in practice.” My concern on the issue is not that the state recognize gay marriages and provide tax benefits. That public policy isn’t what will transform my gay friends’ lives.


Rather, I want my gay friends to focus on finding a spouse they can love forever. One does not need to live in promiscuity for long to feel the psychological and sometimes physical consequences. I want both my gay and straight friends to mature and seek more than the animal thrill of sex with an unfamiliar body.

And so we have the real reason for the coming collapse of Santorum’s primary campaign, doomed from the start: Baby Boomer Social Conservatism’s failure to understand that “Satan” doesn’t work as well as “go ahead but you’ll regret this later…”


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